Looking after Senior pets (Part one of a 2 part guide)
July 13, 2022
How can I make my home more comfortable for my older pet
August 10, 2022
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Looking after Senior pets (Part 2)

In this blog, we will continue to explore caring for our senior pets and what we can do to help them live their lives to the fullest. We will cover more of the conditions that can affect older cats and dogs, as well as ways we can monitor our pets’ health and continue to support them as they reach their twilight years.

Thyroid disease

The thyroid glands sit in the neck, either side of the windpipe. They help to run the body’s metabolism by producing hormones, basically controlling the rate at which cells within the body work. This will therefore dictate energy levels, appetite, even heart rate and intestinal motility. They are controlled by the pituitary gland in the brain. Disease of these glands is very common in our older patients. The thyroid gland can become both overactive (hyperthyroidism) and underactive (hypothyroidism).

Hyperthyroidism

What is it?

Cats tend to be affected by hyperthyroidism, where the thyroid gland produces more hormones which makes cells work at a faster rate.  Common signs of this condition include:

  • Weight loss
  • Increased appetite (even vocalising for food)
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Enlarged thyroid gland
  • Hyperactivity
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea

Most cases are caused by a benign mass in the gland, but in rare cases it can be caused by metastatic cancer.

What can we do?

If you notice any of these signs, seek veterinary advice. The first step will be to run a blood test, to check thyroid hormone levels. A diagnosis can usually be made from this. Once the condition has been diagnosed, there are several management options.

  • Medication à this can be given to slow the thyroid gland down and can be given in the form of a tablet or a liquid. Medication will need to be given for the rest of their life and they will need regular blood tests to check that the thyroid is being well controlled
  • Surgery à this can be performed to remove one or both glands, and means that medication will no longer be required from around 3-4 weeks after surgery
  • Low-iodine diet à as iodine is required to help the thyroid work, reducing your cat’s dietary intake can help to lower the rate at which the thyroid functions. However, this will only work if the cat has NO other food source (including caught prey – if your cat is an outdoors type, they’re probably supplementing their diet!).
  • Radioactive iodine à offered in some specialist hospitals, this works to destroy the thyroid gland without need for surgery

Sometimes when we start treatment for hyperthyroidism, this can also unmask underlying kidney disease. See our previous blog  for information on this condition.

Hypothyroidism

Dogs are more affected by hypothyroidism, meaning that the thyroid gland produces lower levels of hormones, therefore slowing metabolism. Symptoms include:

  • Weight gain
  • Lethargy
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Hair loss across the trunk
  • Constipation
  • A “sad” expression
  • Dark pigmentation of the skin

What can we do?

As with hyperthyroidism, the way to diagnose the condition is through a blood test to check thyroid hormones levels. Once a diagnosis is given, medication will be required for the rest of a dog’s life.

How else can we support our senior pets?

Now we have a better understanding of the common conditions affecting our companions, it’s good to think about what other things we can do to look after them, even if they aren’t yet experiencing any signs of health changes.

Regular check ups

Vets actively encourage that older pets are seen at least once a year. At these appointments you’ll be asked about your dog’s day to day life and any changes you may have noticed. This will include questions about their diet and appetite, how much water they’re drinking, toileting happens and generally whether any of these things have changed. Changes to any of these things can be suggestive of changes to their health, so it’s important for your vet to get the full picture.

They will also perform a physical examination, from head to tail, checking closely for anything that is out of the ordinary.

Blood tests

Screening panels

Many of the conditions that develop in older animals can be picked up on a blood test, including kidney disease, thyroid disease and liver disease. These can be done routinely and are certainly recommended if any health changes are noted.

 Long-term use of medication   

Your pet may also need blood tests if they are taking a long-term medication. It is recommended that blood tests are done every 3-6 months. Firstly, this is to ensure that that the medication is not having any negative side effects, particularly on the liver and kidneys. It is also recommended for some medications that blood tests are needed to make sure that the dose that your pet is on is still working, or if a change in dose (increase or decrease) is required.

Preventative health care

It is still encouraged that preventative health care continues, even as our pets reach old age.

  • Vaccinations à annual vaccines against preventable but serious conditions are still recommended in older animals. These appointments also allow the vet to give your pet a top to tail check.
  • Parasite control à all animals are susceptible to external and internal parasites, so do keep on top of this

Nutrition

You may have seen that many of the popular pet nutrition brands have created special ‘senior diets’, just for older animals. As animals age, their specific requirements for different nutrients and vitamins change, therefore their diets can be tailored for this. You may also consider adding in supplements, like omega-3, green-lipped mussel and turmeric. There is little scientific evidence to prove the efficacy of these, but many owners report success with their pets.

In conclusion…

Animals of all ages deserve a good quality of life, but it is particularly important to keep a close eye on our pets as they get older. Health checks are even more important for senior pets for this reason – regular visits can help your vet spot conditions early, and treatments can be monitored to keep your pet comfortable and happy.

If you are concerned about your pet’s quality of life, take a look at our quality of life assessment, or give us a call – our team are here to help.